The ART FORGER
By B. A. SHAPIRO
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Copyright © 2012
Barbara A. Shapiro
All right reserved.
step back and scrutinize the paintings. There are eleven, although
I have hundreds, maybe thousands. My plan is to show
him only pieces from my window series. Or not. I pull my cell
from my pocket, check the time. I can still change my mind. I remove
, a highly realistic painting of reflections off the glass
Hancock building, and replace it with Sidewalk
, an abstraction of
Commonwealth Avenue through a parlor-level bay window. Then
I switch them back.
I've been working on the window series for over two years, rummaging
around the city with my sketchbook and Nikon. Church
windows, reflective windows, Boston's ubiquitous bays. Large,
small, old, broken, wood-and metal-framed. Windows from the
outside in and the inside out. I especially like windows on late winter
afternoons before anyone inside notices the darkening sky and
snaps the blinds shut.
I hang Sidewalk next to Tower. Now there are a dozen, a nice
round number. But is it right? Too many and he'll be overwhelmed.
Too few and he'll miss my breadth, both in content and style. It's
so difficult to choose. One of the many reasons studio visits make
me so nervous.
And what's up with this visit anyway? I'm a pariah in the art
world, dubbed "the Great Pretender." Have been for almost three
years. And suddenly Aiden Markel, the owner of the world-renowned
Markel G, is on his way to my loft. Aiden Markel, who
just a few months ago barely acknowledged my presence when I
stopped by the gallery to see a new installation. And now he's suddenly
all friendly, complimentary, asking to see my latest work,
leaving his tony Newbury Street gallery to slum it in SOWA in
order to appreciate my paintings, as he said, "in situ."
I glance across the room at the two paintings sitting on easels.
Woman Leaving Her Bath, a nude climbing out of a tub and attended
to by a clothed maid, was painted by Edgar Degas in the
late nineteenth century; this version was painted by Claire Roth
in the early twenty-first. The other painting is only half-finished:
Camille Pissarro's The Vegetable Garden with Trees in Blossom,
Spring, Pontoise à la Roth. Reproductions.com pays me to paint
them, then sells the paintings online as "perfect replicas" whose
"provenance only an art historian could discern" for ten times my
price. These are my latest work.
I turn back to my windows, pace, narrow my eyes, pace some
more. They'll just have to do. I throw a worn Mexican blanket over
the rumpled mattress in the corner then gather the dirty dishes
scattered around the studio and dump them in the sink. I consider
washing them, decide not to. If Aiden Markel wants in situ, I'll
give him in situ. But I do fill a bowl with cashews and pull out a
bottle of white wine—never red at a studio visit—and a couple of
I wander to the front of the studio and look out the row of windows
onto Harrison Avenue. The same view as Loft. I spend a lot
of time in this spot, pretending to work through my latest project,
but mostly daydreaming, spying, procrastinating. It's four stories
up, and each of the six windows in front of me stretches from two
feet above the floor to two feet below the fifteen-foot ceiling.
This building was once a factory—handkerchiefs, some old-timer
told me. But the old-timers aren't known for their veracity,
so it could have been hats or suspenders or maybe not even a factory
at all. Now it's a warren of artists' studios, some, as in my case,
live-in studios. Illegal, of course, but cheap.
According to media hype, SOWA—South of Washington—is
the new trendy district in the south end of Boston's South End;
the north was the new trendy area about ten years ago. But to
me, and to anyone who spends any time here, it's barely on the
cusp. Warehouses, projects, a famous homeless shelter, and abandoned
basketball courts form the base of a neighborhood erratically
pockmarked with expensive restaurants, art galleries, and
pristine residential buildings protected by security. The roar of
I-93 is so constant it sounds like silence. I wouldn't want to live
any where else.
Below, Aiden Markel turns the corner from East Berkeley with
his lanky, graceful stride. Even from half a block away, I can see he's
wearing perfectly tailored pants—most likely linen—and what's
probably a $500 shirt. It's eighty-five degrees on a late summer
after noon, and the guy looks as if he stepped out of his Back Bay
condo on a cool September morning. He pulls out his cell, glances
at my building, and touches the screen. My phone rings.
There's no elevator and no air-conditioning in
the hallways and stairwells. As we hit the fourth floor, Markel's
breathing is steady and his clothes are bandbox. Clearly, the man
spends time in the gym. Not to mention that he hasn't stopped
talking since I let him in the door. No one would guess we've barely
spoken to each other in three years.
"I was around the corner from here just the other day," Markel
says, continuing his running monologue of small talk. "Dedham
and Harrison. Looked at Pat Hirsi's newest project. You know
I shake my head no.
"He's working with cobblestones. Very ingenious."
I pull open the wide steel door with two hands.
Markel steps over the threshold, takes a deep breath, and closes
his eyes. "Nothing like the smell of an artist at work." He keeps
his eyes closed, which isn't exactly what I want him to do; he's supposed
to be here to look at my paintings, fall in love with them,
and set me up with a one-woman show at Markel G. Right. Like
that's going to happen. Although, what is going to happen or why
he's here is beyond me.
"How about a glass of wine?" I ask.
He finally opens his eyes and gives me a slow, warm smile. "Will
you be joining me?"
I can't help but smile back. He's not classically handsome, his
features are too large for that, but there's something in the way he
carries himself, the wide deep-set eyes, the dimple in his chin, that
tugs at me. Charisma, I guess. That and our shared history.
"Sure." I grab a pile of canvases I somehow forgot were on my
beaten up couch and lean them against an even more beaten up
coffee table. Sometimes I think I'm a living parody of myself: the
starving artist sleeping on a mattress in her studio to save on rent.
Yet, there it is.
Markel doesn't move. He stares at me for a long moment then
shifts his gaze over my shoulder, a wistful look on his face. I know
he's thinking about Isaac. I probably should just say something,
but I don't know what to say. That I'm sorry? That I'm still upset?
That I lost a friend, too?
I pour wine into two juice glasses as he settles into the couch.
Not an easy feat as it's lumpy and too deep for comfort. I should
get a new one, or at least a new secondhand one, but the landlord
just raised my rent, and I'm pretty much broke.
I sit in the rocking chair across from him and lean forward. "I
heard your Jocelyn Gamp show went fabulously well."
He takes a sip of his wine. "It was her molten pieces. She sold
everything she had. Plus three commissions. Amazing lady. Amazing
artist. The Met's requested a studio visit."
I like how he doesn't take any of the credit. "She sold" rather
than "I sold" or even "we sold." Extremely rare among the run-amok
egos of most dealers and gallery owners.
"Not often a Boston show gets covered in the New York Times,"
I suck up.
"Yes, it was quite the coup," he admits. "I'm glad to see that
you're still following the goings-on in the art world even though
we haven't exactly been following yours."
I look up sharply. What the hell does that mean? But I see that
his eyes hold compassion, maybe even a little guilt.
"Isaac's Orange Nude sold last week," he says.
Ah. As everyone knows, I was the model for Orange Nude.
Even though it's an abstraction, there's no denying my long, unmanageable
red hair or the paleness of my skin or my brown eyes.
If I hadn't thrown it out the door when we broke up, I'd probably
be living in a condo in Back Bay instead of renting in an industrial
building in SOWA. But then again, I'm not the Back Bay type.
"Don't tell me how much you got for it."
"I'll spare you the pain. But the sale started me thinking about
you, about the raw deal you got."
I struggle to keep the surprise off my face. In the last three years,
no one outside of a few art buddies and my mother—who never
really understood what it all meant—has looked at the situation
from my point of view.
"So I decided to come down and see what you've been up to," he
continues. "Maybe I can help."
My heart leaps at the offer, and I jump up. "I pulled out a
few from my latest series." I wave at the paintings. "Obviously,
Markel walks toward the pieces. "Windows," he repeats, and he
takes in the whole dozen from a distance, then approaches each
"It's urban windows, Boston windows. Hopper-esque thematically,
but more multidimensional. Not just the public face of
loneliness, but who we are in many dimensions. Unseen from the
inside. Or unknowingly seen. On display from outside, posturing
or forgetting. Separations. Reflections, refractions."
"Light," he murmurs. "Wonderful light."
"That, too. Without light nothing can be seen. And with it, still
so much is unobserved." Studio visits make me talk like a pompous
"Your light is amazing. The subtle values. Almost Vermeerlike."
He points to Loft. "I'm struck by the difference in value in
the light from the far left window through to the right ones." He
steps closer. "Each slightly different, and yet each such a luminous
part of the whole."
I'm also pleased with that particular play, but Vermeer, the master
of light ...
"How many glazings are you doing?"
I'm reluctant to admit the truth. Not only are very few artists
using classical oil techniques these days, but those who are aren't
nearly as compulsive as I am about layering. I shrug. "Eight? Nine?"
Which is actually low for me.
"It's reminiscent of the light falling on the black-and-white tile
floor in The Concert." He walks closer to Loft. "The light bouncing
off the building here. It's almost as if it's caressing the diamonds of
He steps back, examines the paintings closely, just as I had
earlier. "I love how you're playing with classical style and contemporary
subjects, with abstraction. But it's the realistic pieces that
grab me." He waves dismissively at Sidewalk. "The abstracts aren't
nearly as strong."
"Not too OTC?" I ask. OTC is "over the couch" in artist-speak,
a derogatory term for paintings purchased by buyers who want
their artwork to match their décor.
Markel laughs. "Not even close. I've been trying to tell people
for years that realism isn't dead. That nothing can touch a great
talent in classical oil."
A rush of warmth fills my body and races up to my face. It's been
a long time since anyone said anything like that about me.
"I have lots more," I say, heading over to the three-tiered shelving
I built to house my art books and canvases, although now it's
all canvases and my books are in semiorganized piles on the floor.
The shelves are a mess, of course. But a mess I know intimately.
I begin pulling paintings before he says he wants to see them. I
grab the stepladder. I need it so I can reach the highest shelf, which
is where I store most of my more realistic paintings. The ones I
figured no one would be interested in.
"These some of your reproductions?" Markel calls from the
other side of the room.
I look over my shoulder. "Yeah. I don't usually have any completed
ones here. But the truck's tied up all week, so the Degas isn't
getting picked up till Friday."
"Reproductions.com. Got to love the name. Saw the article
in the Globe last month. Nice exposure for you." He hesitates.
"Not exactly the kind I'm looking for." Just what I need: publicity
for pretending to paint someone else's masterpiece. "I tried to
get out of the interview, but Repro wouldn't stand for it."
"Are they doing as well as their hype?"
"Probably better," I say, although I'm not really listening and
not at all interested in Repro. I'm too focused on pulling my best
paintings, but not too many. Light. Interesting value is what he
wants, deep and translucent. I grab one. Not strong enough. Then
"Now this is OTC," he says, pointing to the Pissarro, which although
incomplete is obviously filled with trees covered in masses
of white blossoms.
I laugh. "For the pretentious."
"But poor," he adds.
I lumber down with three canvases under my arm. "Not all that
poor. Those things go for thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands
for the bigger ones. Unfortunately, I only get a fraction of that."
I quickly remove my more abstract paintings from the wall. Replace
them with the ones I've chosen. I turn to him, but he's staring
at the fake Degas.
"You're damn good at this."
"It beats waitressing."
His eyes don't leave my rendering. "I'll say."
"Degas' later work isn't all that hard to copy. Not like his early
oils. They're a real bitch," I say, trying to be polite when every part
of me wants to grab Markel and pull him to the other side of the
studio. "What with all those layers. Painting and waiting. Painting
and waiting. Could take months, maybe years."
"And Reproductions.com has you do that?"
"No. Never. A piece like that would have to sell for hundreds
of thousands of dollars." I come to stand by him. "Degas is my
specialty, his oils in particular. I'm actually certified—whatever
that means—by Repro, after I took the requisite classes." I wave to
the piles of books in the corner. "I'm working on a book proposal
about him. His relationship with other artists, dealers, collectors of
his day. Cross-germination. That kind of stuff. But I'm not working
on it as hard as I should be."
Markel's eyes remain glued to the Degas reproduction. "This
seems like a better use of your time. Do they appreciate you?"
"Sometimes I get a bonus when people order a Degas with the
stipulation that I'm the artist," I shrug. "Although you can hardly
call a person who copies a masterpiece an artist."
He doesn't contradict me, and I gesture him back to my real
work. He steals a last glance at Woman Leaving Her Bath before
We stand in silence, staring at my windows. I force myself to
remain silent, to allow the work to speak for itself.
After two minutes that feel like twenty, Markel touches my
arm. "Let's sit down."
We walk over to the couch and sit on opposite ends. He finishes
off his wine and pours himself another. I decline his offer of a refill,
wanting the wine, but fearing I'm too jittery to hold onto it.
Markel clears his throat, takes another sip. "Claire, I've just been
given the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to do good, real good
for lots of people. And I hope you'll feel the same way about the
one I'm about to give you." He pauses. "Although I suppose yours
is really more like making a deal with the devil."
I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about, but I catch the
word "opportunity." "And you're the devil?"
He shakes his head vigorously. "The devil's the one who gave
me this opportunity. Although I've no idea who he is. He's levels
away from me."
Although I meant it as a joke, he ponders the question, a professor
attempting to answer a precocious student. "No. I guess that's
wrong. Pawns are the better analogy. But clever pawns. Who can
capture the queen. Either way, I'm mixing my metaphors."
"I've got no problem with the devil. I'm one of those people
who thinks heaven would be boring. But being a pawn has never
This time he does laugh, but I can tell it's forced. "Then we'll
stick with the devil."
Enough of this. "Okay," I say. "What are we talking about here?"
He locks his eyes on mine. "Something not quite on the
I don't break the stare. "I thought you said it was an opportunity
to do good?"
"The end is good. It's just the means that are a bit iffy."
"There's illegal and there's illegal."
"And which one is this?"
Markel looks across the room at the Degas and Pissarro.
And now it all makes sense. "Oh" is all I can say.
He takes a sip of wine, relaxes into the lumpy couch. The most
uncomfortable part of this conversation is clearly over for him.
I cross my arms over my chest. "I can't believe that after everything
that's happened, you, of all people, would even consider asking
me to forge a painting."
"How much does Reproductions.com pay you?"
"They pay me to copy, not to forge."
"So you said a fraction. A few thousand a picture? A little more?"
Often it's less, but I nod.
Excerpted from The ART FORGER
by B. A. SHAPIRO
Copyright © 2012 by Barbara A. Shapiro.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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